THE public schools in Hartford, Conn., have the full range of problems facing urban classrooms throughout the United States: shrinking financial resources, deteriorating facilities, and an influx of poor immigrant children - few of whom speak English.
Hartford's students ranked lowest in the state after Connecticut's most recent round of standardized mastery tests. The school dropout rate, which had declined a bit, is heading upwards again.
It's little wonder the city's Board of Education is open to new ideas, and the idea currently seizing its attention is privatization. The board is in the early stages of exploring a deal with Education Alternatives Inc., a Minneapolis-based firm known for its management of a dozen public schools in Baltimore.
``There are serious problems to be addressed, and the traditional ways haven't produced the desired results,'' says Annette Markham, administrator for the Hartford school board. The option of a business arrangement with EAI is being carefully weighed, she says, quickly adding that a final decision is still a ways off.
Contrary to some reports in the press, says Ms. Markham, the school board is not ready to jump into EAI's arms. The Hartford officials want a trip to Baltimore to examine the schools run by the company there, and they also want further public forums at which Hartford residents can air their questions and concerns.
The most vocal concerns to privately run public schools, in Hartford and elsewhere, come from the unions whose members staff the schools. Both of the nation's teacher unions - the National Education Association (NEA) and American Federation of Teachers (AFT) - have attacked private management of public education, in general, and EAI's record, in particular.
The AFT recently released a report saying the test scores of pupils in the Baltimore schools run by the company have declined in comparison with those of students in that city's traditionally managed institutions. But those conclusions have been disputed by school administrators in Baltimore.
``This is the first full year we can say our kids have been part of the Tesseract instructional model,'' says Donna Franks, a Baltimore public-schools spokesperson.
``Tesseract'' is an educational program developed by EAI that emphasizes a ``personal education plan'' for each student, based on students' individual ways of learning.
Three or four years are needed to assess how the program is doing, says Ms. Franks. The company's five-year contract with Baltimore schools began in July 1992. ``First-year tests may go down as everyone adjusts to a new system,'' Franks says.
Criticisms of EAI reach beyond the question of student performance, however. Judy Behnke directs the NEA's Center for the Preservation of Public Education. ``We are opposed to for-profit companies coming in and running public schools,'' she says. ``A company's bottom line is to make money for shareholders, and, for people who really care about children, the issue is: What's the best kind of education we can give a child?''
Ms. Behnke sees bottom-line thinking at work in the way EAI is carrying out its contract in Baltimore. The $5,916 per-pupil payment the firm is getting from the city is supposed to be an ``average'' of per-pupil costs throughout the district. But that average includes more expensive secondary schools, while EAI is managing only elementary schools, with the exception of one middle school. ``There's built-in profit there,'' says Behnke.
Franks doesn't deny that the company may be getting $500 or so more than the average cost of educating an elementary-school pupil in Baltimore, but adds, ``We think we have the right to invest in solutions.'' For that ``little more,'' she continues, ``we have a much improved school environment, increased teacher development, and the kids receive computers.''
Enhancements, like a computer lab in every school and computers in each classroom, are part of EAI's appeal. The company works in tandem with partner firms - Paramount Communications for computer technology, Johnson Controls for building maintenance, and KPMG Peat Marwick for financial management - to supply schools with services out of the reach of most urban districts.
While EAI brings in administrators to manage areas like curriculum and parent involvement, the principals and teachers in the company's Baltimore schools are still city employees working under the same contracts they had before, according to Franks. By and large, she says, these employees are happy with the public-private partnership. The principals, for example, ``welcome having someone come in and take care of the maintenance worries.''
IN Hartford, EAI's supersalesman top executive, John Golle, has been talking to local officials and citizens' groups in the hope of landing his first contract to manage a whole school district. That would be a big step for the eight-year-old publicly held company, whose financial fortunes have dimmed a bit after an earlier surge on Wall Street. But Connecticut's capital city is approaching that prospect with due caution, according to Markham.
The Hartford school board has drawn up a set of guidelines for an agreement with EAI. They include, says Markham, a credible plan for improvement in student performance, the protection of current public employees, retention of ultimate decisionmaking authority in the hands of the board, compliance with laws governing special education and bilingual education, and keeping within the current $171.1 million budget for running the city's schools. As in Baltimore, Hartford would want the right to cancel the contract with EAI for any reason with 90 days' notice.